An estimated 17,000 Kansans have attempted or seriously considered suicide. Wichita Mental health leaders are fighting to end the stigma around the topic.
by Trace Salzbrenner
This story on mental health contains data analysis by Gretchen Lenth, The Wichita Beacon’s Dow Jones data intern from this summer.
Content warning: This story discusses suicide, suicide attempts, and mental health in general. If you or someone you love is struggling with their mental health, check out The Beacon’s local mental health resource list.
Nicole Fenoglio struggled with depression in high school, and toward the end of her undergraduate study at Wichita State University, she attempted suicide. She said she felt directionless.
Fenoglio survived her attempt and sought mental health help, to learn more about depression and how to live better with it. She would complete her undergrad study, work as a social worker for a while and become a licensed therapist.
She became involved with the Sedgwick County Suicide Prevention Coalition but she felt that the organization, while good, had some gaps she could fill.
Mental health in Wichita
The Sedgwick County Suicide Prevention Coalition’s mission is to “promote and implement evidence-based approaches, local research, and community change to reduce the impact of suicide with the ultimate goal of zero suicides in Sedgwick County.”
Zero – not the more than 100 suicides that occur here annually. In 2020, suicide was the ninth leading cause of death in Kansas with 531 suicides statewide. Sedgwick County alone saw 150 suicides that year.
Fenoglio wants to get to zero, so she started her own organization, Stop Suicide ICT, which provides training to families, businesses, and even other therapists on crisis prevention. They also collect community resources that can be passed along to those in need.
“I really understand, I think, how people feel when they become that low, ” Fenoglio said. “Having become a therapist, I also know the professional side. I am able to bring both perspectives combined to really help people.”
Many more people attempt or seriously contemplate suicide. In Kansas, that is estimated to be up to 17,000 people a year.
Those who do commit suicide leave behind scores of friends and family who loved them. The impact is magnified to the point that one advocacy group estimates half of the adults in their own lifetime will know someone who died by suicide.
Community conversation is key
The key to preventing suicide, Fenoglio and others say, is a community of people willing to talk about it.
Jessica Provines, another Wichita mental health advocate, is assistant vice president for wellness and chief psychologist at Wichita State University. In 2015, she started #WeSupportU, a grant-funded effort to get the conversation going around suicide and what help is available. Provines uses research-based methods to train faculty, staff, and fellow students to be good listeners to people who are struggling with depression. In 2020, the program added an online training option.
Now Provines is reaching out to provide suicide prevention training to the broader Wichita community. On Tuesday, about 75 people attended “Preventing Suicide in Our Community: A Workshop for Influences of Public Opinion,” held at the Wichita Advanced Learning Library.
“We need leaders to lead on this,” Provines told the group, which included Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple, Councilwoman Maggie Ballard, and Sedgwick County Commissioner Sarah Lopez-Lewis. “We need to empower the community to support each other because that is the only way we are going to lead on this.”
Lopez-Lewis spoke of her own mental health challenges from anxiety. “I struggle every day. If I don’t keep it in check, my whole life gets out of whack. I go to therapy every week. I have for years.”
Provines said people tend to avoid talking about suicide because a loss to suicide can feel unreal – as if reality has distorted and a lot of shame and guilt can be created.
The stigma of loss and mental health
“Later in my career, my worst nightmare happened,” said Provines earlier in an interview. “I had lost someone who had come to me for help to suicide, and the guilt and shame that comes along with a traumatic loss like that changes a person forever.”
Provines states that when a suicide happens, communities can go silent. Fenoglio agrees. “It doesn’t get put in obituaries, in Facebook posts, so it gets harder for people to even reach out,” Fenoglio said.
Provines and Fenoglio both describe an unintentional isolation that is counter to what many families need after experiencing suicide loss. Instead, communities should come closer together to support one another and diminish any feelings of isolation.
“I encourage parents to talk about mental health with their children like they would have the ‘birds and the bees’ talk,” Fenoglio said. “‘You’re gonna change and at some point, you are going to have these feelings, blah blah blah.’ Talk about mental health that way.”
Fenoglio also recommends regular mental health check-ins with a professional, as you would with a primary care doctor, and being open about how you are feeling. “Suicide prevention is way more than just helping someone in a crisis,” she said.
Provines said Sedgwick County, like most counties in Kansas, is underserved for mental health care. But there are still places to reach out and get help if you need it. “Be educated, learn more about it,” Fenoglio said.
Who is affected the most?
According to data provided by Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center, 2020 had the most suicides in the last seven years with 150 deaths. Of those 150, 85 percent were male and 87 percent were white.
Provines speculates that males outnumber females because of a stigma around mental health that makes men more reluctant than women to seek help. She noted that suicide rates among Hispanic, Black, and Asian residents are significantly lower than for whites. While she is uncertain of the cause, Provines speculated it could be because those cultures place a high value on family connection.
Sedgwick County resources for mental health crises
COMCARE’s 24-hour Hotline & Community Crisis Center (316) 660-7500
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
Kansa Children and Families Mobile Crisis Helpline (833) 441-2240
Ascension Via Christi Behavioral Health Center Inpatient (316) 263-5000 Outpatient (316) 858-0218
KVC Children’s Psychiatric Hospital in Wichita (913) 890-7468
United Way 211
Mental Health Association of South Central Kansas Main number and residential (316) 685-1821 Outpatient council center (316) 650-2590